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Human fragility

Listening to each other may work where dogma fails


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Humans share many traits in common, but each human is a universe unto himself, a peculiar mix of experiences, prejudices, pains, pleasures, and conflicts. That’s why it’s a mistake to judge another human by one’s own dogma.

This happened to me, years ago, in a church setting. Because I did not subscribe to a set of extra-Biblical doctrines, I was judged as recalcitrant and stubborn. When I tried to discuss it, they only listened for key words and phrases to seize upon and demolish. All my accusations, however tactful, ricocheted on me: You’re the one who’s legalistic. You’re the one who’s contentious and self-righteous.

Over time, I felt less than human in their eyes, at least in regard to anything spiritual. I represented the Enemy. They’d already heard my objections and dealt with them (i.e., dismissed them). My failure to get with the program was proof of what they’d been saying all along.

Humans of all colors get defensive and argumentative when blamed for a situation they didn't directly cause.

I suspect most of us have experienced judgment by someone else’s prejudices, because that’s how we tend to judge others. Until we get to know them. Real problems develop out of a worldview or set of assumptions so rigid we can’t get to know them.

Robin DiAngelo has an answer for that. She’s the author of White Fragility, a book published in 2018 that received a huge boost with the recent racial upheaval. For years DiAngelo (who is herself white) has led seminars in corporate and academic settings for audiences notably pale. She’s heard every objection to her thesis that “people who identify as white” exist in a bubble of self-deception about race—especially progressives. “When we try to talk openly and honestly about race, white fragility often emerges as we are met with silence, defensiveness, argumentation, certitude and other forms of pushback. These are not natural responses”—instead, they are the conditioning of centuries of a white hierarchy desperate to hold on to its position.

To me, these seem like perfectly natural responses—human responses. Humans of all colors get defensive and argumentative when blamed for a situation they didn’t directly cause. What’s unnatural is to put aside one’s immediate response, listen thoughtfully, and judge whether any blame is justified. Maybe; maybe not. Having listened to Robin DiAngelo’s online talks, I can credit some of what she says, at least enough to think about it. It’s doubtless true that the black experience is different from white, that color influences perspective, and that biases can lie deeper than we know.

I’m not so sure that every white person is socialized to feel superior, or that the American system is built on racism. I would be willing to discuss those reservations, but to DiAngelo, any pushback is proof of my inherent racism. And there’s nothing I can do about it, except to sit in dust and ashes and vaguely hope for improvement someday.

African American sociology professor George Yancey doesn’t entirely disagree with DiAngelo’s thesis: “I believe that many whites are defensive and do not want to confront the reality of our racist past and the current manifestations of that past.” Still, as a Christian and as a scientist, he finds the blunt absolutism of White Fragility unempirical and unhelpful.

In a long article at Patheos.com he argues for “Mutual Responsibility.” Blame may be understandable, but it won’t get us anywhere. We are all human, and humans can’t be compelled to heart changes. Even if all the demands of black activists were met, any gains would be temporary. Whites, being human, will push back. “The practical smart play is to engage in active listening to work out win win solutions if what we want is long term success.”

In other words, each accept the other side as individual humans with legitimate concerns and try to reach a compromise. To ignore actions and words in order to purge the psyche of an entire population, as White Fragility attempts to do, is impossible and ultimately destructive.


Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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